Few things are more critical to the lives of veterans than finding new jobs when they leave the military and return to civilian life.
Through the Troops to Teachers program, whose Virginia chapter is based at the College of William and Mary, many of these men and women are finding new careers in a setting one might not expect to see veterans: In the classroom.
The Troops to Teachers Virginia Center has been based out of the William and Mary School of Education since April 2017, when it relocated from Old Dominion University. Over the past year, the program has had 1,199 participants in varying stages of obtaining licensure and searching for jobs, with 129 new participants in the past quarter, according to executive director Gail Hardinge.
“We work with veterans from across the state, with universities from UVA-Wise to ODU and everywhere in between, and with 96 school divisions across Virginia,” Hardinge said. “From these offices, we work with veterans who want to enter the teaching field along every step of the way, from gauging their initial interest and areas of expertise, to mock interviews and working with school division HR departments on job placement.”
Virginia has one of the highest populations of military veterans in the country. The state had 725,028 veterans in 2017, or about 11.25% of the state’s population, ranking eighth in the country in total numbers, and is projected by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to move up to the top five states in the country by 2027. This increase in the veteran population, combined with the growing need for more teachers in school divisions throughout the commonwealth, makes the work done by the Troops to Teachers Virginia Center even more important.
To that end, in June 2018, Gov. Ralph Northam pledged an additional $1.9 million toward recruiting veterans to serve as teachers. That money, which was given to the Virginia Department of Education by the U.S. Department of Defense, will cover a five-year grant to the state’s Troops to Teachers program, providing $380,000 annually to the center.
“Many of Virginia’s military retirees possess educational backgrounds and life experiences that are well aligned with the needs of our students and schools,” Northam said in a speech announcing the grant. “This additional funding will allow the commonwealth to build on our effort to tap this pool of talent as a means of easing the teacher shortage, especially in critical areas like mathematics and career and technical education.”
The additional funding, as well as the move to Williamsburg, has had an immediate positive impact, according to Hardinge. The Virginia Center is administered by both William and Mary and the Virginia Department of Education, and Hardinge said that insight and aid from the School of Education has been invaluable.
“The relocation has been very helpful in terms of being more centrally located regarding Virginia’s military population, close not only to Norfolk, but also to Richmond and Fort Lee, and to Fort Belvoir and Quantico,” Hardinge said. “Williamsburg is uniquely positioned for reaching out to Virginia’s military population, and on top of that, William and Mary has been very supportive since day one.”
Over the past two years, the center has worked to establish partnerships with universities throughout the state, such as the William and Mary’s Military and Veterans' Affairs Working Group, VCU’s Green Zone program and Virginia Tech’s Office of Veterans Services.
They’ve also increased visits to military bases and veteran job fairs throughout the state, according to Charlie Foster, the center’s veteran liaison, offering a different career path to veterans.
“Most of these job fairs for veterans will have a dozen of the same types of jobs. Your defense contractors and police departments, some construction and industrial jobs too, but not a lot of stuff outside those fields,” Foster said. “We’ve found they not only have liked having some variety in job offers, but that seeing there are options beyond the more stereotypical post-military careers has been a great relief to some of them.”
A former U.S. Marine himself, Foster said that while some may see military veterans seeking careers in teaching as unconventional, historically, it’s been a career path for many veterans, and it taps many of the same skills and desires that attracted these men and women to military service in the first place.
“A lot of soldiers are used to teaching or instructing others while in the military, and, when looking for new careers, they look for that same sense of meaning and purpose they had in the military, and teaching offers important work that has a significant impact on their community. Most veterans find that very appealing,” Foster said. “One thing that helps is many schools say they want more role models and male teachers, and you’d be hard pressed to find better ones than some of the men, or for that matter, some of the women that come through our program.”
Finding a path
One veteran currently in the early stages of the Troops to Teachers program is Brandon Johnson, who said the unconventionality is part of what drew him to the program. Johnson, who earned a bachelor's degree in Urban Studies from VCU prior to enlisting, said what first drew him to the program was it was the only booth at a military jobs fair that wasn’t for factory or mechanical work, or for a police department — and the chance to earn a master’s degree or obtain a teaching certificate was what kept his interest.
“When looking for work as a veteran, you want somewhere that offers some of that military structure, but sometimes it seems like there aren’t a lot of places that offer that for the guys who like using their heads more than their hands,” Johnson said.
“Troops to Teachers, it offers vets possibilities they may not have considered before, that maybe I could teach urban studies or geography, that there are avenues other than police or construction work.”
Stories such as Johnson’s that are common, according to Foster. The program has seen interest on all levels, from enlisted soldiers who are getting out after a few years, to career officers with decades of experience.
“The very first placement the program had after we relocated to Williamsburg in 2017 was a retired lieutenant colonel who had worked as an instructor at West Point who wanted to continue teaching as a civilian, so we have seen interest at all levels,” Foster said. “He was the kind of officer who could easily fill a leadership role as a defense contractor or at the corporate level, but he wanted to go into teaching because he found the classroom appealing, and wanted the kind of high-level impact and interaction you can have working with two dozen kids.”
One aspect that makes Troops to Teachers unique, according to projects specialist Karen Hogue, is that there is never a one-size-fits-all approach — every veteran in the program is evaluated based on their skills, experience, desires, as well as the needs of the school district.
“We work with veterans to find where they may be the best fit, given background and experience, yes, but also the kind of place they’d like to live and teach,” Hogue said. “What route would be the best to get them where they want to be, and then we work with the school divisions to work to get them where they’re needed and wanted most.”
The program works with veterans on everything from their transition to civilian life, to working to get them licensed, job shadowing and substitute teaching opportunities, to holding mock interviews and connecting them with school divisions throughout the state where they’d be a good fit.
Though several veterans who have come through the program have interviewed with Williamsburg-James City County Schools, none have yet been hired, according to division officials. Despite this, with several program members continuing to express interest in the area, that may change, and the program is eager to see any interested veterans find a home in Williamsburg, as they did.
“One of the next steps for the program is we’re working with some of the larger school divisions here in Virginia, many of which have their own organized support and recruitment programs, and some who may not, and work to find ways to fit in our veterans,” Hardinge said. “We are always looking for new opportunities for veterans to active military to experience education … and see if it’s what they want in the future.”
Want to know more?
For more information on the Troops to Teachers program, visit proudtoserveagain.com/States/Virginia or email the Virginia Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email email@example.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.